Her tiny, birdlike frame seems lost in the embrace of a large, plush sofa in an anteroom of the business centre at the Oberoi Grand. But Nadine Gordimer still spells personality with a capital P. At 84, she is a beautiful woman, her delicate face framed by silver grey hair, her eyes a clear blue-black. I have been warned that she may terminate the interview if she doesn’t like the questions (she hates interviews anyway), so of course my list of questions seems totally inadequate.
Besides, she has fixed me with a firm stare and announced that she refuses interviews that aren’t recorded. “I want you to write what I have said,” she tells me softly but clearly, with just a trace of her South African lilt. “Not what you think I’ve said, and I talk quickly, too.” I assure her I will faithfully write down every word, and she looks doubtful for a moment before compressing her lips and signaling me to get on with it. So I nervously do. Because Nadine Gordimer the anti-apartheid activist is so much part of Nadine Gordimer the writer, I start off asking her about the battles she has fought, and continues to fight. “I played a small role. I didn’t go to jail, as many of my comrades did. I went as far as my courage would allow,” she says. “You see, I am first of all a writer, I was born that way, but I am also a human being.” In a lecture delivered in Kolkata the previous evening, Gordimer has alluded to the moral and social responsibility of the writer, and when the question comes up again, now, she carefully dissociates such responsibility from “propaganda”.
She categorises her writings alongside those of Athol Fugard and Andre Brink and Es’kia Mphahlele (which she pronounces ‘Empashlele’, and when I imitate her correctly, I earn the verbal equivalent of a pat on the back). “We were living at a time when we had to write the truth, the bits that were never reported in the newspapers. But then, governments never listen to writers.” Evidently they do, considering the bans imposed on three of her novels by the apartheid government. “I’m glad they were banned. No bans would have been worrying,” she says wryly.
By now, Gordimer has unbent enough to discuss any possible crisis of faith that she may have faced, and I feel I am allowed to ask who she turned to during those crises. She agrees she is an atheist with left-wing sympathies, explains that the source of her faith is “our responsibility to each other”, and then wistfully turns to her favourite poet W.B. Yeats: “What do we know but that we face/ One another in this lonely place?”
The question of ‘responsibility’ is evidently a significant one in her life. It is the single most important reason why she never really considered leaving South Africa. Her late husband, Reinhardt Cassirer, belonged to a notable family of Berlin Jews. He arrived in South Africa as a refugee from Nazi Germany, and studied in London and Heidelberg. “He wasn’t Africa born and bred like me, and he had a nostalgic love for London, I suppose, so we did toy with the idea of living there for a while, but in the end I realized I was too attached to Africa,” she smiles.
As a white South African who established deeply personal bonds with the anti-apartheid movement, Gordimer nevertheless remains reserved and unsentimental about the risks she must have run as a supporter of the once outlawed African National Congress. But her face lights up in a rare smile when she recalls the experience of standing in a mixed-race queue to vote in her country’s first post-apartheid election. “It was the best experience of my life,” she says. Better than the Nobel Prize? “Yes it was, really.”
Mixed race brings us to the question of Indians in South Africa, who, Gordimer notes approvingly, did not flee the country as those in Kenya did. “They stayed and went to prison,” she smiles again. And Kenya, the home of Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul’s forefathers, naturally brings us to why she has called his Bend in the River “a racist book”. I point out that her remark is likely to be quoted out of context to indicate the man rather than his book. “You think so?” she replies. “I’m sorry to hear that. He’s a great writer, which is why the book disappointed me.” And then she adds, with no real remorse, “Maybe I shouldn’t have said what I did, then.”
It’s nearing the end of my allotted time, and Gordimer hasn’t glanced at her watch more than once, purely out of habit, I assume. We’ve covered a lot of ground, talking about the small but growing Black South African middle class with particular reference to the software industry, the Indian middle class too (“I loved Mr Varma’s Great Indian Middle Class”), the shanties outside Kolkata airport, the plight of poor, unemployed young people who take to violence (not least in South Africa), why the South African cricket team may never have the required share of Black players, and why South African president in waiting Jacob Zuma’s motto is: Bring Me My AK-47 (“he doesn’t say it much now, though”). She has shown me a sketch her granddaughter made in Mumbai (“she sketches beautifully”), and a newspaper clipping about parallels between India’s long-standing democracy and South Africa’s still-nascent one.
I try to introduce Taslima Nasreen into the conversation, considering Gordimer has been on various anti-censorship boards, but she doesn’t respond, as I had hoped she would, with a brief tirade. Instead, her face aglow, she holds forth on how South Africa no longer has censorship, “except if someone actively preaches violence”. The pride on her face as she says this is proof enough, one feels, of a life less ordinary. Thank God she liked the questions.
(This was recorded in November 2008)
Yajnaseni Chakraborty is Features Editor, Hindustan Times.